'Next to Normal' review – this raw musical tackles mental illness with courage, wit and deep empathy

Read our four-star review of Next to Normal, starring Caissie Levy and Trevor Dion Nicholas, now in performances at the Donmar Warehouse to 7 October.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Embrace the pain. Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Tony and Pulitzer-winning chamber musical, which has finally reached the UK 15 years after its momentous Off-Broadway debut, really puts you through the wringer in its raw depiction of mental illness and family disconnection. But this courageous and deeply moving piece provides ecstasy as well as agony, light as well as darkness.

Next to Normal centres on Diana Goodman, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder – but, as her latest therapist freely admits, it’s not an exact science. She might actually be closer to schizophrenia, or caught in a vicious cycle of grief, anxiety and depression.

The big question is how she should treat her psychosis. Medication just numbs her (one doctor triumphantly labels that “stable”) – although that might be preferable for her exhausted family. It’s terrifying for us, too, to be plunged into her manic episodes and startlingly real hallucinations in Michael Longhurst’s effectively intimate, achingly empathetic Donmar production.

Long-suffering husband Dan still hopes they’ll find a fix – but is he really a loyal saviour, or is that desire for a “perfect” life selfish and delusional? Meanwhile their tightly wound, Red Bull-slugging daughter Natalie is introduced to the twin pleasures of weed and jazz by new boyfriend Henry – demonstrating that no one is “normal”, and everyone is medicated to a degree. Diana deserves support, not ostracisation.

This could all be relentlessly bleak. However, the inventive score gives us welcome tonal shifts – from heart-pounding rock opera (shades of RENT and Spring Awakening) to a wistful waltz or a vivid black-comic set-piece. When Diana’s therapist showers her with meds, the lab coat-wearing cast leap out of the fridge, shaking pill bottles like maracas. The lyrics are too explicit though; you long for a tad more subtext.

Longhurst has assembled a dynamite company, led by Caissie Levy (the original Elsa in Broadway’s Frozen). When she unleashes her mighty voice in “I Miss the Mountains”, Diana’s admission that she’d rather feel pain than nothing, that storm of emotion pins you to your seat. But Levy modulates her performance beautifully; she’s just as riveting in the quieter moments, with one almost too nakedly vulnerable to watch.

Jamie Parker’s Dan is neither hero nor villain, just desperately human. His voice wavers when he reaches breaking point, his love possibly another form of “madness”. As angsty Natalie, Eleanor Worthington-Cox conveys a lifetime of abandonment, while crafting sweet chemistry with Jack Ofrecio’s Henry (though he can’t master the American accent). There’s a clear parallel between their relationship and the parents’, and an inherited predisposition or trauma.

Jack Wolfe brings electrifying rock-star vocals to son Gabe, particularly in standout number “I’m Alive” – he’s definitely one to watch. Trevor Dion Nicholas, who was tremendous in Aladdin and Hamilton, gives a much more understated but equally impressive performance here. He’s a wonderfully sensitive scene partner to Levy.

Longhurst’s production is too prop-heavy – there’s a lot of tidying going on – but it’s a smart choice to keep us mainly in a familiar family kitchen. Various theatrical elements, like a revolve, neon lights, projections and a visible (excellent) band, help dramatise and amplify Diana’s condition, otherwise he grounds us in a powerful naturalism.

This feels like the perfect time for the show’s next chapter. Post-Covid, we’re reckoning more with mental illness and the difficult role of carers, with pharmaceutical versus social solutions (see also Lucy Prebble’s The Effect at the National). There are 1.3 million people living with bipolar in the UK, and, astonishingly, ECT – grimly depicted here – is still a common treatment.

Next to Normal doesn’t offer a pat solution, and it leaves some bracing lines hanging – like Diana honestly telling Natalie “I love you as much as I can”. But with greater understanding from us all, nurtured by shows like this, there is hope for healing.

Next to Normal is at the Donmar Warehouse through 7 October.

Photo credit: Next to Normal (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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